Lengthy “think pieces” and an endless parade of discussions and panels. The national media are in New Orleans, and the efforts of the city to educate and promote the recovery of the last 10 years are on full display.
The epicenter of the activity is the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street, where whole floors have been turned over to days of panels drilling into all aspects of the flood’s aftermath. Reporters and officials have spent the past few days shuttling through the hotel, a de facto media hub in September 2005 when it quickly reopened following the storm.
More than 700 journalists officially have registered for Katrina-related events, likely only a fraction of those producing stories, video packages and other works about the storm, the flood and the recovery.
The commemoration, which includes group discussions and debates, tours of the area’s flood defenses and a long list of announcements, grand openings and groundbreakings timed for the national spotlight, has been in the works for months. Mayoral aide Ryan Berni, who has coordinated much of the effort, described the events as an important moment to assess where the city is.
“This 10th anniversary is an important time to reflect in a lot of different ways,” Berni said. “We take it seriously because of the lives that were lost and the property that was lost. And it’s a key opportunity to remind the rest of the country of the storm’s effects.”
“People forget how much pain and sacrifice people have had to make over the past 10 years, particularly right after the storm,” he added.
At the same time, there are those whose mental image of New Orleans never progressed beyond the terror and tragedy of the flooding and its aftermath, and a milestone anniversary presents an opportunity to showcase how far the city has come since 2005.
That puts the city in a delicate balancing act between three points the mayor has laid out as the motivating principles of the commemoration events: remembering the victims of the disaster, thanking federal agencies and philanthropic foundations that aided in the city’s recovery, and presenting to the rest of the world the progress that has come in the last decade.
Anniversaries of the flooding have been much quieter in most recent years, with lower-key events like wreath-layings standing as the main official commemorations. The spotlight has not been so clearly on New Orleans, or so broadly focused on both its successes and continuing struggles, since the other major markers in the storm’s aftermath: the first Mardi Gras, the first anniversary and the commemoration of the fifth year.
The last time the city was the focus of so much media attention was in the run-up to the Super Bowl in 2013, held at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, as 5,000 reporters descended on New Orleans and, naturally, made the city’s recovery a part of their narrative.
In contrast to that event, the media attention on the 10th anniversary of the storm has been deeper and more probing, bolstered by a series of reports and studies timed to coincide with the anniversary of the disaster.
While there’s no question Landrieu and his staff have used the opportunity to highlight the gains the city has made since he took office in 2010, his public appearances also have included frank admissions that the city still has a long way to go.
That’s come most notably in discussing the murder rate, on the rise after a brief lull — something that Landrieu said makes him “apoplectic” — and the struggles New Orleans’ black community faces, including an unemployment rate among African-American men put at 52 percent.
Those are issues Landrieu has tied closely together, arguing that city initiatives aimed at improving educational outcomes and job opportunities for young black men will yield a lower crime rate. At the same time, he has pushed back against federal and state officials for cutting funding for public safety and argued for less incarceration, while continuing to fight for a smaller Orleans Parish Prison than Sheriff Marlin Gusman is seeking.
Many of these thorny topics are front and center in the panel discussions being held throughout the week at the Sheraton, crash courses in the last 10 years of life in the city.
A Monday session put together by The Atlantic magazine, with speakers including Landrieu, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and other high-profile names, packed a ballroom at the hotel, though later events featuring local media and officials have been far less well attended.
“We felt like it was important to talk about the progress in the city and also have honest conversations about the many challenges that continue to face us,” Berni said.
Landrieu himself has been shuttling from one thing to the next, conducting, by his estimate, 10 interviews before lunch on Monday and also appearing on panels and at commemorations and remembrances, ribbon-cuttings and unveilings.
The events themselves have been mostly funded by a long list of philanthropic partners, in particular the Rockefeller Foundation, which also has ponied up cash for the city’s “resiliency plan,” unveiled Tuesday.
While New Orleanians themselves may be growing sick of the ever-growing raft of articles and videos being published about the storm and the city, the coming days likely will see even more.
Live broadcast spots have been set up along the riverfront and in Jackson Square, at key post-flood locations like the Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Other locations, such as the newly completed Andrew P. Sanchez Center in the Lower 9th Ward and Crescent Park in the Marigny, also are available to provide vistas of work that has been done during the recovery.
Details are still being finalized on the number of specials and live broadcasts that are to come over the next few days, though organizers say all the major networks, as well as cable networks CNN, MSNBC and others, have expressed interest.
The fevered pitch is expected to grow still more intense as the week rolls on. President Barack Obama will visit on Thursday. While the full agenda for his visit has not been released, the city announced Tuesday that the Sanchez Center will be closed for the day to accommodate his speech.
Former President George W. Bush will visit a day later and will speak at Warren Easton Charter High School.
Former President Bill Clinton will headline an event with Landrieu on Saturday, the actual anniversary, that is expected to fill the Smoothie King Center. The event, which will feature musical acts and prayers, will culminate with a second-line headed down to the Ashé Cultural Center on O.C. Haley Boulevard.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.